He has clothed himself in the mantle of our 16th president in ways large and small throughout his presidency, the latest a light-hearted spoof at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner of “Lincoln” star Daniel Day-Lewis playing him in the Steven Spielberg-directed movie “Obama.”
Obama knows what he’s about. Progressives have been after Lincoln like Mormons baptizing the dead since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. By capturing the legacy of Lincoln, they know they can use one of the most beloved figures in American history to bless an endlessly expansive government and isolate and deprecate their opponents.
“The official leaders of the Republican Party today,” as Roosevelt put it in 1913, “are the spiritual heirs of the men who warred against Lincoln.” If Obama hasn’t stated it so starkly, his point is essentially the same. This is shrewd politics but poor (and self-aggrandizing) history. It distorts Lincoln or entirely misses his point in a brazen act of historic body-snatching.
As I recount in my new book, “Lincoln Unbound,” he was a proponent of markets, individual achievement and personal responsibility. He embraced economic dynamism and development. He rejected populist demagoguery directed at corporations and banks and, in fact, worked as a lawyer for the biggest corporation in the state, the Illinois Central Railroad. He warned against class warfare and made working for your own living — and not off the work of others — one of his bedrock principles.
He considered property rights sacrosanct and called patent law one of the greatest inventions of all time. He revered the Founders and their principles with an ardor that might make even Ted Cruz blush.
All of these elements of his politics were at play in his struggle to end the rural backwardness in which he had grown up and — more importantly — to end slavery, which as “unrequited toil” offended his sense of basic justice and natural rights.
Of course, Lincoln had a positive view of government, believing that policies supporting transportation, industry and a sound currency would create a vibrant, open economy. You can argue about the wisdom of his approach, but it didn’t involve anything like the massive, redistributive transfer payments of the modern welfare state, not to mention the regulation or the bureaucracy.
The left’s Lincoln kidnappers cite a draft note for a lecture he wrote circa 1854: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves.” Mario Cuomo quotes these lines in his book “Why Lincoln Matters” that portrays Lincoln as a standard-issue liberal and Obama, too, has pointed to them
The passage doesn’t prove what they think it does. Lincoln was referring, on the one hand to policing and the prosecution of crimes, and on the other, to “public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.” In other words, thoroughly uncontroversial functions of government. And when Lincoln talked of government, he didn’t necessarily mean the federal government.
In the same document, he writes, “In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.” He elaborated in an 1858 speech, “I believe each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man’s rights — that each community, as a State, has a right to do exactly as it pleases with all the concerns within that State that interfere with the rights of no other State, and that the general government, upon principle, has no right to interfere with anything other than that general class of things that does concern the whole.” (Continues at POLITICO)